It seems as I get older, among all the things that have become more difficult, chief among them is the ability to avoid the deeper meaning of my interactions. Much as I may try, sometimes I simply can’t.
A farewell party for the headmaster who got resettled to Australia. In a few more months, I will be saying goodbye, myself.
Case in Point
Tuesday mornings I teach English to a group of Chin refugees from Myanmar. (Read about Chin refugees in the New York Times.) They are Christian children who fled with their parents over the border to Malaysia to avoid the civil war going on in the Chin State in the south of the country. I’m not clear on exactly why or what their circumstances are. Language, cultural, and political barriers prevent me from getting the full story. But what I do know is that these kids are undocumented immigrants in Malaysia, assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The refugees sit in political limbo for years waiting, hoping to be resettled in Australia or the United States. Malaysia won’t take them but tolerates them here while they await their resettlement. The Malaysian police are known to hassle them and extort money out of them…which is why I am not showing their faces. But I want you to know their story — as much as I know it in the near-year since I started teaching them.
The unmarked entrance to the school — unmarked because the students face harassment from the police seeking bribes. They have been known to stop the children on the street and demand money from them and follow them home until they get it from their neighbors and family.
The school’s washroom.
I won’t lie to you and tell you teaching them is the highlight of my week and how much I look forward to being there at the broken down, stinky classroom with restrooms that would curl your hair in horror. I’m untrained as an English teacher and I’m pretty short on tolerance for screaming kids and cockroach infested, grimy classrooms such as this. I’m not going to get a best-selling book out of the deal and I won’t be considered a folk hero among humanitarians for my one class a week volunteer gig. But I will say that teaching these kids is the most rewarding thing I do all week.
Someone has finally fixed the banister. Yay!
Each week I walk up the dingy staircase to the noisy classroom teeming with little kids — some of whom are now teenagers but nonetheless are so small I could pick up and throw a teenage boy across a room should I ever need to. Not that I need to. They are mostly well-behaved kids with great respect for their teachers and elders.
When I enter the room, the students all stand up and yell in unison, “Good morning tee-shuh!” Like a judge I ask them to be seated and I begin the lesson. Usually I start with my Word of the Day lesson. I introduce to them a new word and concept, often some sort of moral lesson that I sneak in under the guise of English lessons. Last week was ‘hygiene’ where I taught them the basics of washing hands and keeping their homes and bodies clean to prevent disease. Being a recent typhoid survivor I felt the gravitas of this lesson. The week before that was ‘progress’ and I asked them to write about where they are making progress and where they wish to make more. Before that it was ‘respect.’ Today’s word of the day was to be two words: ‘metaphor’ and ‘simile.’
But when I walked into the class this morning, no one stood up to greet me. My entrance went unnoticed. I was surprised and curious about the lack of good cheer which normally brightens the dismal setting. Two of the boys who are best friends and normally sit next to each other with their legs and arms thrown over each other in boyish affection, today sat a row apart ignoring each other. One had his head down on the desk, the other with a blank look on his face. The girls didn’t greet me either. Hmm, what’s going on here, I wondered? I asked the boys if they had had a fight. They shook their heads. I asked the girls if the boys had had a fight. They also shook their heads no. “Then what’s going on, I asked?” No answer. At their core, they are Asian and negative emotions are considered unsightly, unnecessary and counterproductive. At my core, I’m Californian and awkward silences must be examined, negativity delved into to find resolution.
Occasionally when teaching, I’ve found it necessary to ditch my lesson plan scratched in my notebook and ‘go with the flow’ to address what’s needed by the students in the moment. Today was one of those days. So instead of launching into metaphors and similes, I wrote on the board, “WORD OF THE DAY: MOOD/MOODY.” I asked them, “Does anyone know the meaning of the word MOOD? Let’s say it together — it sounds like FOOD…MOOD.” No one repeated the word with me. I was bombing like a bad comedian. I asked the girls with the dictionaries to look up the word and read the definition — they remember a word more if they look it up themselves. Then I wrote some moods on the board for them: Sad, Glad, Mad, Happy, Excited, Angry, Bored. I asked the boys to sit next to each other as they always do and to answer my questions in a few sentences, “What is your mood today and why?” They silently set about writing. I watched the pencils wiggling and the lip-biting as they scrutinized their papers. Then I asked to see what they wrote hoping that I would get some insight into the strange silence. Curiously they weren’t shy about sharing their papers with me.
One of the boys wrote that he was feeling lonely because his girlfriend doesn’t want him anymore. He used the word lovelorn. I couldn’t believe he used that word! Clearly he had done some research into his broken heart so that he could articulate it. He also wrote that his phone died. Jeez, double whammy, kid. No WONDER you’re so bummed. For kids today, phones are arguably more important than friends. They are the conveyance devices of attention and love and some connection to the outside world, especially for these kids who are so cut off by their poverty and undocumented status. So I could empathize with his pain.
While the others were still writing, I sat down next to the lovelorn one and looked him in the eye (which I later learned is confrontational in Chin culture) and said, “You know, feeling lonely and sad is OK, it’s a part of life. And sometimes you will feel pain in life. Just remember that you have your friends here and they will be your friends even without your phone and girlfriend.” He braced himself with his arms around his chest and writhed a bit. I am guessing about 35% of what I said made it through the language barrier. Still, if he heard the words ‘sad is OK’ and ‘friend,’ he got the message.
This student is the oldest in the class and his broken heart and phone had a sort of emotional domino effect. His retreat to the back of the room by himself cut him off from his best friend and cuddle buddy who seemed so forlorn without him. And the girls — well, like most of the time, they defer to the boys. Their papers didn’t reveal anything as they said they were happy and glad, the default mood from Asian children…at least on the surface.
At midpoint in the session I went around the class and asked for them to tell me in one word what their mood was. I got the usual happies and glads. But when I got to the lovelorn puppy, his mood was happy on the outside, sad on the inside. Hey! Progress…last week’s word. Somehow just for him to pencil out his pain seemed to help him. And relocating him back to his buddy re-engaged him. Shortly after this I wrote on the corner of the board my travel schedule to inform the kids in advance of my upcoming month-long trip to America and Europe. One of the girls yelled, “No teachuh!” showing a shocked and disappointed face. I think she was expressing some sadness that I would be gone. For me this comes as a heartwarming surprise. I never really thought that they could possibly enjoy my class or me as a teacher.
My name is Dim. I’m 10 years old. I want to play violin and I need a violin but I don’t have one. I need to buy. I don’t have money. When I grow up I can buy a violin but now I’m young but I want to learn now. I need violin lessons but I can’t afford them. Some people have a violin. I can’t learn without one hear. I’m really really like a violin. (sic)
One week in class I had them write up wish lists — something that they would really like to have in their lives. They got out their papers and wrote away and I photographed some of their requests when they finished. Here are some of them…
Hello. My name is Tammy. I want to learn to dance and I need study and learn dance lesson. I don’t know how to dance but I want to learn. Sometime my lovely sister teach me how to dance but she doesn’t teach base. I would like to learn base and I need to try more and more to know dance base and lesson. Now I don’t know base and lesson. I know how to dance but I cannot dance when I don’t know dance base. I cannot do without Jesus. I can only do with Jesus. So I need to pray to Jesus. I believe someday he will give me answer.
My name is Hang Thung Lia. I come from Myanmar. I have two brothers and I don’t have any sisters. I want to play guitar. I need to study a Guitar. I think one day I will become a music teacher.
These of course are heart-wrenching to read. The kids are hopeful and yet have no real reason to be. They’re poor as dirt living in substandard conditions, at the mercy of a vast bureaucracy which keeps them in limbo status for years. One of my students has been in KL for 6 years awaiting resettlement. Her plea to Jesus seems like a desperate call for someone to listen to her.
When I first stepped into this volunteer teaching gig arranged by the United Nations, I really had no idea how to teach children. To be honest, I don’t even like kids. I find them to be annoyingly loud and too random in thought. Helium voices, crumb snatchers, disease spreaders. I avoid kids whenever possible. But I needed to do something productive during my time here in Kuala Lumpur and as a native English speaker, I have a much-needed skill to share. So I took it on, bought a how-to book, took a one day workshop, and watched some YouTube videos. My American friend Cynthia who teaches at an international school here gave me some folders with handout worksheets for the kids. I attended class with her a couple times as her TA. All of this was my self-imposed boot camp to be an ESL teacher and I certified myself.
The time came for me to solo teach, so I hopped in a taxi and got lost, almost giving up but found the unmarked door at the last moment. I walked up the stinky stairs and strode into class armed with materials but empty handed in confidence and experience. Checking my notes on exactly what I would cover that day, I just stepped up to the board and gave it a try.
My teaching was decidedly bookworm-ish. Word of the day? For goddsake how boring is that? One day last year I walked in to find 2 new teachers from England had taken over the adjoining class to teach the younger kids. They had battery operated portable speakers attached to their iPhones and a guitar and they had the kids up on their chairs singing and clapping. It was hard for Miss Schoolmarm Me to conduct my dull class with all the commotion of the super-ESL teachers next door doing the Hokey-friggin-Pokey. They were putting their left feet in and their left feet out and shaking them all about. At one point I wrote the word ROWDY on the board and had the students look it up. I was unamused and secretly envious of this duo who could motivate children instantly.
I went home that day feeling like a total failure, ready to quit. Clearly I didn’t have the skills to teach like that nor the charisma to excite children to jump to their feet and sing songs in English. And I really, really hate the Hokey Pokey. What good is the Hokey Pokey going to do for them when they get resettled? Wouldn’t they be better off knowing good hygiene and past participles?
Next week I came in expecting to be further humiliated by the Up With People ESL-ers, but they weren’t there. The classroom was silent. They didn’t show up. I, however, showed up with my word of the week: COMPASSION. I had them write persuasive letters to someone they know who smokes to please stop smoking. I had them read books and identify the 5W’s. As a nod to the ESL teachers on speed, I offered a game of charades. And a fake chat show where we would interview each other.
The weeks and months went on and I began to feel more comfortable in my Schoolmarm skin. Perhaps the biggest lesson I taught was the one I taught to myself about just showing up. Being there for the kids, week after week, month after month is enough. They’re like little chicks and they imprint easily and now they’ve adopted me in all my boring, middle-aged, lacklusteredness (that could very well be the word of the day, next week).
Coming from a wealthy country to Malaysia has been one order of challenging for me — to face the grit and grime of an undeveloped nation on a daily basis. I’m so easily defeated and vanquished by it all. But to teach refugees who come to this place as the shining city where everything is possible is something else. It takes every bit of courage on my part to do it and then when it’s done I am so touched by them. They’re virtually undefeatable, these kids. I couldn’t tell them that no one is listening and they may never get resettled and if they do, they will be miniature misfits in a world of giants who will have them cleaning Walmart stores on the midnight shift somewhere in Oklahoma. But I can’t tell them that. They’ve taught me a thing or two about courage. Courage to leave your country and start over. Courage to be happy with what you have when it’s so little. Listening to these kids has given me confidence to teach them and share with them what little talent I have.
I may not be Jesus, and maybe I don’t have the ability to grant them their wish lists, but I show up and I listen. And in a world that mostly ignores and exploits them, it’s maybe not such a small contribution.